Technologies for the renewable energy future: accelerating and expanding offshore wind energy

By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

To maintain the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, global emissions must be reduced by 55 percent by 2030. Accelerating the clean energy transition is foundational to limiting global warming, since the energy sector accounts for 76 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Within the energy sector, heat and electricity generation rank as the highest emitting sub-sector at 31.9 percent of global emissions. 

Harnessing energy from offshore wind is essential to achieving a future powered by clean energy. Offshore winds are more powerful, abundant, and blow more consistently than land-based winds. As such, they have incredible potential to power global electricity needs. An assessment of the capacity for offshore wind energy production in U.S. federal and state coastal waters as well as the Great Lakes found that there is potential to generate 2,000 gigawatts of capacity annually. This means that if American offshore wind energy production is maximized, it would create enough energy a year to power almost double the nation’s current electricity needs. 

Cover photo: Offshore wind farms have enormous capacity for renewable energy production. Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore energy capacity by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78 million metric tons. Reaching this goal would also support 77,000 jobs—employing 44,000 people directly in the offshore wind industry and an additional 33,000 in nearby communities. 

But while offshore wind is one of the most promising frontiers in the future of energy, current logistical challenges and high cost of installing and maintaining offshore facilities are significant barriers to rapid, widespread implementation. A company called RCAM Technologies seeks to address these challenges by combining 3D printing technology and biomimicry to develop technologies that reduce the cost of offshore wind farms and facilitate easier construction.

A prototype of RCAM’s energy storage modules. Photo courtesy of RCAM Technologies.

RCAM Technologies uses 3D concrete printing to create common components of wind turbines—anchors that hold floating wind turbines in place, fixed bottom foundations for turbines in shallower waters, and turbine towers. RCAM’s designs can be 3D concrete printed at ports, circumventing the logistical challenges of transporting large pieces of equipment. The company says that their innovations can lower installation costs by up to 90 percent compared to standard industry practices, while also utilizing domestic materials and local labor. RCAM has also designed long-term energy storage technology that can house the energy made by offshore wind—concrete spheres that mimic the ability of arthropod shells to withstand pressure. These hollow spheres sit on the seafloor and store energy within them. 

Solutions such as these, which reduce costs and solve logistical challenges, could help offshore wind technology become more accessible globally. Democratizing access to clean energy sources is crucial not only to fulfill the energy needs of high-emitting developed nations, but also to ensure that the growing energy needs of developing nations are met in a sustainable manner. As renewable technology increasingly out-competes coal as the cheapest energy option, access to low-cost renewables becomes a mechanism for economic prosperity as well as climate change mitigation. New renewable energy projects added in 2020 are projected to save emerging economies $156 billion over the projects’ lifespans. Innovations like those developed at RCAM Technologies will be crucial to making the offshore wind industry as cost-effective as possible while also streamlining implementation so that offshore wind energy can be a major global player in the clean energy future.

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